How Do You Think, Where Do You Stand and How Do You Hold the Line? By: Andrea Schara

Words, like seeds, may be lovely or scary invading monsters with deep roots. Words may offer you information, greater awareness, more responsibility for self or even a deep understanding of your predicament. New ideas in mental health do not fit with the way we have learned to think about the individual as the problem. At work and at home someone else is the problem, not me.

Murray Bowen, MD made a discovery about individuals and how they function in a system. He developed a theory to help people see how families functioned, just like other social organisms.

It turns out that to be able to think and see how the forces in a social system operate on all the individuals, is very difficult skill to learn. Our brain sees someone as the problem. We are often blind to relationship pressure. But when you see the system’s forces at work a whole new world opens up. It offers many more solutions to a problem than if it was just the individual. Now the problem is how to communicate these new and possibly threatening ideas? How do you make information appealing, but not so appealing that people cannot see the challenges? Sweet reassuring words may not be as important to our brains. No reason to wake up, all is well. Then there are those who rattle us so we cannot think about what is going on. They tell you – “Hate and blame rule, so step aside, follow me or die.”   Highly emotional words are weapons of mass appeal. Thinking for self can go out the window. Emotion rules; our physiology suffers. Adrenalin surges. Words can be weapons or gifts. They can encourage awareness or blind us into a thoughtless togetherness. 

Murray Bowen, M.D. saw the outcome of giving up self to blindly follow the emotional appeal of others in WW II. After studying psychoanalysis, he decided that making a science of human behavior was a way to discover the natural laws regulating the family unit. Turning to the science of evolution, Bowen saw how facts were collected and natural laws explained. Both Darwin and Bowen wrote about the changes they observed over time.  As Bowen wrote up his observations of how systems fun.  However, his descriptive writing slowly allowed a few others, and now many others, to begin to see the system. What a gift.

Bowen observed and wrote about how that families automatically pass on values and hurts over the generations. Future generations were being influenced by the fears of the past. Most of us react to our family stories without knowing we are reacting. 

Shall we cooperate or pay them back?  The choice is ours. React or find emotional neutrality. Watch the system do as it must. You can choose not to join in with anyone – rather to think for yourself. Of course, I may not see all that is going on, but I can see how some of the system is operating to pressure me to react. When you’re observing your family around a crisis see if you can decide for yourself how to be more thoughtful and less reactive. In that way bit by bit, you can reduce, without blame, the emotional blindness we all live in. 

Bowen was writing in the seventies about how the system looks for the weak, it piles on and they cannot understand how they may be contributing to the problem.  People apply band-aids to cover up the problems rather than taking it on and looking for their part in the problem. How do you know when you’re overreacting to a problem by being too threatening to others, or too distant from the problem? What does it take to really analyze problems and consider various approaches to solve deep issues? It is a challenge to take a more mature stance.

People react. You are too different, and they might throw you out. Can you stand alone and act on principle? 

Bowen did it by saying the way he saw the family as system. Then he predicted a societal regression. One where deep thinking was not possible. In a regression people return to an early time in development when they are more dependent and less sure of self. They give in to others and go along with silly things and threats. More people think they know what is right for others, and so that is how others become more helpless and cannot think for themselves. They are dependent on you telling them the answer and they oppose you with all their might when you tell them your best idea. How do any of us promote each person to be more responsible for him or herself and less of a crowd following people pleaser? 

In the last years of Dr. Bowen’s life, I traveled with him and made videotapes of his teaching methods.  One group, called the Syracuse six, would invite Dr. Bowen up for a day to present to a larger audience and then the next day he would spend time with a smaller more focused group for a more wide-ranging conversation. The day was April 29, 1989, a year and six months later he died.

Below are some of the quotes that I took from that time, as I still find them useful in thinking about principles that guide behavior. He could see how one person can influence the system if they are willing to take a more mature stance. See what you think of his ways of communicating ideas? Bowen had a different way of seeing things and that may be useful to you.  

“Leadership is equivalent to being a responsible person who is trustworthy.”

“At NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health), I told the patients, (who had been acting out and reported by the hospital administrator), it is more important to keep peace with the place than with you. You have to get along with the place and give me some kind of reason that I can respect that you will do it. You have to respect people, or I have to take over. I am not going to trust you if you disappoint me and refuse to comply with the rules. (Overall), a lot depends on your relationship with the person. If they trust you they will go along with you. How far can you trust people? You can ask a person: Are you all talk?”

“Alcoholics are out of their relationship with people. They are not responsible people. And if they want to stay that way then I quit messing with them.” 

“A person who can hold others responsible rather than do it for them is more mature.”

“The person on welfare can learn to think: what can I get out of them…? Welfare workers can get so caught up in the system that they just want people to do what they’re supposed to do. (And so pressure them to do it.)”

“Society does not determine the attitude of the people; the people determine how society functions!  If you can be more realistic, then they can be more realistic. Can you leave the problem over there instead of seeing it in them? Can you be more realistic about the problem?”

“My dad had been driving his car all his life then he got into fender benders. The insurance company said, “No more driving the car.” My sister said, “I can take the car and insure it and then Dad can drive.” After that Dad had no more accidents. People can respect others and hold them responsible.” 

“Elderly people get anxious because they have memory problems and they need someone to check in on them, but if you take over for them then they will die on you. Elderly people can accept you telling them what reality is and they don’t mind you checking up on the reality – is the stove lit or not? It has to do with your ability to be with older people, but if you move in on them and tell them what to do, then they collapse and will die sooner.” 

“If you want to keep your family out of your ego, then you have to tell them how much you can be responsible for and stick to it. Like, I can respect you as long as you’re reliable, but when you’re not reliable then that’s when the problem starts. If the person fails to do it three times, then I take over and them him this is what you gotta do, or you have to leave.” 

“Mr. B (a patient on the ward at NIMH), if you’re not reliable then I can’t trust you. And I’m not gonna give you and more permission to (leave the hospital) until you become more reliable. If the person can trust you they will go along with you. If it’s all talk and no action, then I don’t trust you. I tell them that. And a person can accept that because they know they have been unreliable.” 

“If the government can hold the line about what they have available and that’s it, then people do better. When the government is responsible for irresponsible people then the numbers increase.” 

“Who are the ones that are trying to do the best that they can do? What is your average level of responsibility or of leadership?”

“You have to look at differentiation over time. People’s functioning can go up and down in a day. People get married and their functional level changes from day to day.” 

“People depend more on what the therapist is, rather than what that person says.” 

“I put the idea out there – there is something about the problem they have that they can do something about, and if they don’t want to take it on, OK – I can drop them off. You relate to the person as far as you can, but if they are not reliable you get out of it.”

Bowen had his way of interrupting relationship processes by both talking about them in broad terms and in how he interacted with others. 

Our brains are not wired to see or think carefully about relationships. It requires discipline to not go automatic with the people we love and care about or even to the strangers we meet every day.  

What can each of us do to work on being a more separate and unique individual in a troubling world? Most of the videotapes that I made are now available at the National Library of Library of Medicine, the home of the Murray Bowen archives. Currently I serve on the board of the Murray Bowen Archives Project and continue to work to make his work available to the public.

Photos shown of Dr.Bowen were taken by Andrea Schara